For fifty years the World’s attitude to and treatment of the coca leaf and coca farmers has been controlled by the UN Drugs Conventions beginning with the Convention of 1961 which prohibited the production, possession and purchase of the coca leaf as well as cocaine. The assertion of this report is that the illegal status of the coca leaf is based upon a misinterpretation of science, first of all in 1950 with the publication of the misleading study of the Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf; and much later with the blocking of the publication of a report in 1995 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) which made abundantly clear that the coca leaf itself has “no negative health effects”.
At the root of the drug policy debate in Latin America is growing recognition that present policies have failed to achieve the desired objectives, the extremely high costs of implementing those policies paid by Latin American countries, and the need to place higher priority on reducing unacceptably high levels of violence. Of particular concern is the spread of organized crime and the resulting violence, corruption and erosion of democratic institutions.
Despite its unprecedented nature within the history of the international drug control regime, and regardless of warnings to the contrary, the Plurinational State of Bolivia’s withdrawal from the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs on 1 January 2012 did not result in a collapse of the United Nations (UN) based control system. That said, there is a strong case that, although marking the centenary of the regime, 2012 will be seen as the beginning of the end of the treaty system in its present form and the re-structuring of a policy world apparently so cherished by many members of the International Narcotics Control Board.
Reflections upon this year’s CND are mixed. On the one hand, some states went further than ever before in openly challenging the current regime on the grounds that, after a century, it needs modernising. That the government of Uruguay is currently considering a domestic policy on cannabis that would put it in breach of the Single Convention shows that, in one instance at least, we have moved beyond rhetoric and posturing.
Latin America has emerged at the vanguard of efforts to promote debate on drug policy reform. For decades, Latin American governments largely followed the drug control policies and programs of Washington’s so-called war on drugs. Yet two parallel trends have resulted in a dramatic change in course: the emergence of left-wing governments that have challenged Washington’s historic patterns of unilateralism and interventionism and growing frustration with the failure of the prohibitionist drug control model put forward by the US government.